Tex and I rode the straight road south with a shaggy haired driver in a tight green shirt. Tex leaned over from the back seat. “We’re pretty hungry. Can you give us those food stamps on your dash?”
“I guess so” The driver’s voice quavered. He braked a little too close to the car in front of us. Then he lifted his head to look in the rear view mirror. “Maybe if you go swimming with me?”
“We need the food stamps,” said Tex.
“I have to stop for gas,” the driver pulled his shoulders forward. He swerved off the freeway exit. At the station we sat in the car til he reached over the steering wheel and gathered up the stamps. “Are you sure you don’t want to go swimming?” he asked as Tex checked them over.
“Yes,” I said. “Thanks for the ride.”
“You gotta get what you can get,” Tex muttered. He was in his late teens with a small head on a long neck and the scraggly beginning of a few blonde hairs poking from his chin.
I met him after my ad hoc religious cult session, in downtown Portland. I’d just run out the emergency doors of the church after finishing a free personality analysis with an earnest good looking believer named Jody Engram, “you have many many deficits,” she concluded after thumbing through my completed test, “bad posture, unable to connect with people, you have anger issues.”
Engram had long thin eyebrows that moved up and down, added eyelashes and lots of white pupil. She invited me in, she wasn’t hard to look at and I had nothing else to do except keep moving, inspired by the song “California Dreaming,” which was in my head all the time since I left Canada. After crossing the border the road fell away to the south in one long downward line.
“This’ll be like a pleasant lunch break,” I concluded, never knowing that two hours later I’d be sitting in a circle surrounded by six of the faithful, all rocking back and forth in agreement with Jody Engram.
“Can I leave now?” I asked and she said, “No, not if you want to avoid self-destruction.”
All the circle faces turned to me and nodded some more. “You must stay,” said a girl in a very short mini dress, “In order to get clear.”
She was right I could become one of them. I could get clear and be free, partner up with the mini dressed one and leave my California wandering behind for certainty and chanting. “Might there be a catch?” I asked her, yet I was already into the leaving spiral, whirling in my personality deficits, never stopping anywhere for long and L. A. on my mind.
“Can I use the bathroom first?” I asked, turned, grabbed my backpack, ran down a hallway and darted out an emergency door without looking back. The city bus stopped right outside at that very moment. I leapt on and headed for the back. A smiling skinny slope-shouldered guy who introduced himself as Tex, said “backpacks in common,’ and asked “heading south?”
He said he was “going home” to Texakarna. He spent his last money on the Greyhound to Portland. “I necked all night with this chick on the bus,” he said. “What about you?
“My girlfriend broke up with me,” I said. “So I’m going to California.”
He found that very funny.
We rode out to the freeway together and hitchhiked until the nervous driver picked us up.
At the gas station, Tex exchanged the food stamps for beef jerky. We chewed and walked towards the Salvation Mission near the railroad tracks of Eugene, Oregon, late afternoon light shining through the trees, the road ahead straight and with snow on both sides. We hiked along the tracks by the railroad yards, coming towards us came a man with a huge head of black hair. He pushed a baby buggy as he came closer I saw it was full of scrap metal and then he yelled out “I am the Scavenger!”
His ripped pants were covered in oil and creosote and he told us “We’re gonna get together for a bottle of wine!” His voice clear and true and confident, Tex laughed with him along the tracks and I stayed silent for I couldn’t express what I did not feel which was the joy of incipient drinking.
“Welcome to my home!” the Scavenger said, “I’ll show you the Mission!”
We stepped into a low rise brick building covered with gang graffiti, and a short, wizened faced man told us “Supper’s not til six but sit there if you want doughnuts,” and we waited with the whiskered faces, the creosote smeared pants and stained shirts of sunken cheeked hoboes, one old man with pants around his knees sitting there in sagging underwear asked Tex for money.
“Get away from me, succubus!” Tex yelled. He walked over to me. “They’re all succubi. You know what succubi are?”
I had three hundred dollars in my pocket. That was supposed to last fourteen days, enough to take me to California. I looked at the saggy pants men. “Yeah, they’re like vampires,” I said.
Two burly officer types threw sacks full of doughnuts onto a table and the crowd surged forward.
“Lucky we had that beef jerky,” said Tex. “Let’s get outta here.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I feel sorry for the succubi.”
The Scavenger walked with us, stuffing doughnuts into his massive trench coat pockets.
“How much money do you guys have?” he said. “I’ve got three bucks, if we all have three bucks we can buy a bottle of wine.”
“I got a few food stamps I can trade,” said Tex. “How about you, Rennie?”
“Yeah, I can spare a couple of bucks,” I said.
“Right on. I wanna get drunk,” Tex said. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”
As we walked and as the sun went down the pressure in my head grew. I saw light in my companions’ eyes as they talked about wine and different kinds of sugar and grapes and moonshine. I was rich in comparison with my three hundred dollars. I could have been part of them like part of Joe Engram’s church, a sober man in a congregation of drunks, but the only thing that beckoned me was the road south. As it faded in the western sky I wanted to run towards the light, like I ran through the church emergency exit to the sunny day.
“I have a personality deficit,” I said. “I can’t fit in with you guys.”
“Huh?” Several hoboes walked with us now, everyone put their change together and now we had two bottles, as the Scavenger led, along the railroad tracks.
“Don’t you want to drink?” asked Tex.
“It’s too dark out now. Where are we gonna sleep? There’s snow on the ground.”
“In a boxcar,” said Tex, “That one over there.” I saw it covered in graffiti and swirling logos, I walked over and felt the floor of black dust and my hand came away covered as I glimpsed my dirty fingers in the yellow sunset.
“It’s a drinking car,” said Scavenger.
My dirty fingers felt the pad of money in my pocket. I could depend on this three hundred bucks to take me away from them, and I knew that’s all that separated me really, that and the wine.
“I gotta roll,” I said.
“You gotta do what you gotta,” Tex shrugged. He hopped into the pitch black boxcar.
I walked back along the road towards the setting sun thinking about that kid. Who was he, where was he going? Into that boxcar with all those older alcoholic guys? And then tomorrow, what purpose would he have, except the journey home? I was heading the opposite way myself.
I never saw him again.
It felt good under the street light, that wash of bright power. I checked behind me to see if anyone was following. I saw a police car, and it moved up and stopped beside me. “Where you going?” said the officer in the passenger seat and I answered “California.”
He looked at me. “Hey, smart guy, I mean where are you going tonight?”
I improvised. “I’m looking for a cheap place to stay,”
“There’s a place right down the end of that street,” the cop pointed while his partner leaned on the steering wheel. “120 South First. It’s only fifteen bucks a night.” He scribbled the address on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “If we see you out here later, we’re not going to be happy. This is a high robbery area.”
“Thanks,” I said, and headed down South First, sure enough, 120 sat at the end, an older, gabled two storey house with a strong gate. I rang the doorbell, and waited. A face looked out at me from a side window. After a few minutes, a grey faced lady in a huge purple nightgown squeaked open the door. She held a large grey cat that matched her hair.
“The police said I could stay here,” I said.
The lady nodded. “Yeah. They called. You can stay in the room upstairs. It’s fifteen dollars. You got fifteen dollars?”
‘Uh huh,” I said. “I certainly do.”
She shuffled inside. “Come on, I take in all the strays.”
I lay up in the attic with a number of tabbies and shorthairs, in a big bed that lay like a lump in the middle of the slant ceiling room. Every time I moved, the cats moved closer. Their purring filled the air. It was the most comfortable sleep I’d ever had.
The next day I headed south, for no apparent reason but the “California Dreaming” song and the three hundred dollars that would take me there. I was straight edge, no religion, no alcohol,
no selling sex for money. No joining up with anyone. What an escape, what a getaway, far from grabbing for doughnuts at a hobo mission. “Reaching towards the light is all we can do” I thought as I walked out of the stray cat house and witnessed the sun already high and turning in my direction.
I came all that way because my girlfriend broke up with me. I wrote her a letter, told her all about the day travelling with Tex, and sent it snail mail. When she received it, I’d already journeyed all the way to California and back, and wasn’t thinking much about her at all. I know all this today because she mailed the unopened letter back to my home address. On the back of the envelope she’d printed in block letters “This is yours.”